Years ago, Eli Jacobson recalls, people often had the same image pop into their heads when he spoke about the style of music that he and his group perform.
“If you said ‘a capella’ to somebody, they thought about guys in candy-striped shirts and straw hats,” says Jacobson, a member of the a capella act VoicePlay. “They thought you were talking about barbershop music.”
But not so much anymore.
In recent years, a capella music has taken on a more modern sheen and slowly moved into its own corner of the mainstream, thanks to the “Pitch Perfect” movies, the TV competition show “The Sing Off” and groups like Straight No Chaser, The House Jacks, Rockapella, Pentatonix …
And yes, VoicePlay, the five-member act from Florida set to appear at the Union County Performing Arts Center in Rahway on Sat., Feb 4.
As the name implies, the group’s members use nothing but their voices to recreate pop hits, old favorites, Disney tunes, Broadway showstoppers and more. And if you think the hip-hop beats that lie under the melodies are courtesy of a drum machine, think again. They come from a human larynx, too.
VoicePlay has toured all over the U.S. and attracted a sizable following on its YouTube page. There, you can find creative clips of them singing everything from “Grim Grinning Ghosts” — the song from Disney World’s Haunted Mansion ride — to “My Shot” from the Tony-winning Broadway sensation “Hamilton.”
Their “aca-Disney” video — featuring songs from “The Little Mermaid,” “Aladdin” and more — has topped the 1 million view mark.
“There is something uniquely human about using just your voice in certain ways,” says Jacobson, a 37-year-old who has been with VoicePlay for seven years. “I can see why humans can be connected. It’s almost philosophical — to be able to use the human voice that way. It really makes you feel good when you hit the harmonies. I think people can appreciate that at a human level.”
Jacobson and the group’s other members hail from the Orlando area, the pop-music mecca that spawned Brittney Spears and boy bands in the 1990s — as well as a not-as-well-known a capella music scene.
VoicePlay’s three founding members — Layne Stein, Earl Elkins Jr. and Geoff Castellucci — formed the group in high school. They were initially called 42Five, a nod to how they went from being a quartet to a quintet. But they later changed the name for a simple reason.
“We were all looking for something to rebrand — to give us something that could be more genre-defining,” Jacobson says. “People knew what they were getting. It described what we do. “
Jacobson — whose first name is pronounced “Ellie” — was in his own a capella group at a nearby high school.
“For me personally, there was part of me that wanted to be in a (rock) band,” he remembers. “But the positions were already taken.”
He got to know his future VoicePlay mates at competitions. Sometimes, he would sit in with them. Eventually, he became a full-fledged member.
Jacobson also sang in numerous original and cover rock bands over the years, playing both corporate events and the bar scene — a period that initially overlapped with the a capella gig. But he soon abandoned rock.
“I discovered this was a better focus for me,” Jacobson explains. “I had a better time doing it.”
Having Disney World and Universal Studios in Orlando allowed a capella music to flourish in central Florida, Jacobson says. All of VoicePlay’s members have sung at the parks over the years, both individually and as a group.
“What’s nice about a capella is it’s relatively modular,” Jacobson says. “It can be moved, it can be customized. It was an easy hire for the theme parks. It created sort of the environment for a lot of us to be able to work. It created a little hotbed of a capella in the Orlando area.”
VoicePlay also got national exposure when it competed in Season 4 of NBC’s “The Sing Off,” an “American Idol”-styled singing competition show — only with an all-a capaella theme.
As for the success of “Pitch Perfect”? The film about a college a capella troupe became a sleeper hit in 2012, further raising the profile of the genre and helping redefine it for a new generation.
“I generally stay positive on anything successful for a capella,” Jacobson says of the movie and its sequel. “We’re a clan of underdogs. It has always been the underdog of the musical entertainment sphere. People now realize a capella is not one thing. It can be viewed as sort of a diverse array of things. Just like rock ‘n’ roll is not one thing.”
Jacobson adds that the internet has also helped the genre reach a wider audience.
“The more that’s out there, the better,” he says.
As for what to expect at Saturday’s show in Rahway? The group performs everything from Queen to current pop hits and hip-hop. There are also “skits and bits,” Jacobson notes.
“You can expect to find five guys that are going to have a really good time on stage,” he says. “I hope the audience walks away and says that was a show and not just a concert. VoicePlay is more of a show than it is a concert. It’s something the family can enjoy, people who are on date can enjoy. Really people of all ages.”
VoicePlay hits the Union County Performing Arts Center on Saturday, February 4 at 8:00 p.m. For tickets and more information, visit www.ucpac.org.